How odd! This must really be heaven. I think I just saw Salar strolling around without a shirt. Ow, my head hurts… No, the ship! I'm still on the ship; I can feel it moving… or is that me? Oh, I can't even open my eyes, it hurts too much… Someone make the swaying stop, I'm getting nauseous…
Oh Allah, please make the pain stop. I can't take it anymore. It's burning! Oh God, Am I in hell? I can't see anything, please Allah, let me open my eyes… Wait, why am I slipping?
OH DEAR LORD! WHO IS THAT? WHY IS THAT TOUCHING ME?! I CAN FEEL HIS NAILS. OUCH, THAT HURTS YOU ILLITERATE LITTLE… Oh… actually, that feels rather good. My back doesn't sting anymore. Okay, I apologize; I shouldn't have called you an illiterate bastard. Although I'm sure I'll have to kill you once I gain consciousness. Is that Salar? I can hear him talking. I CAN HEAR YOU TALKING! Of course, I'm thinking that I can hear him, I can't exactly scream, can I? What's that? I'm getting better? Really? Wait, let me whip you into shape, let's see if you get better, huh doc? Oh God, the slipping, I can't take it…Salar, make it stop…
Darkness all around. Perhaps I really am dead, but then, Mirage thought, If I was dead, I'd either probably be in hell, burning up with the devils' pitchfork up my bum.
And if she'd be in heaven, she'd probably be playing Polo or kicking up a storm in a much better version of Saulta. But no, the first thing Mirage felt was the feeling of a comfortable bed and the sound of someone snoring lightly. A parrot jabbered from somewhere far away.
And was that a particularly hard pillow under her head? Had someone taken advantage of her after she had passed out? Why hadn't Salar stopped them? The slight embers of her anger suddenly started flaring up. She tried to open her eyes but couldn't. Even doing so, she felt her body give out.
Frustrated, she dimly registered that she wasn't on a ship and the ground was still, it was only her head which was swimming. She was as weak as a newborn kitten, probably more so.
Mirage tried turning her head to face the snorer and the knives of pain running through her almost made her yelp out. Not wanting to wake up the person next to her, she moved slightly, checking for her various movements and functions. Lifting her legs with great difficulty, she winced as her knees popped when suddenly the person beside her moved and she froze. Groping for her sleepily, the person reached for her hair and affectionately stroking her head, he slid his hand down her body. She felt a shiver as the person avoided touching her back and gently, his hand came to rest on her buttocks. Pulling her to him, the man, she judged from the size of the hand, snuggled her head into his neck and settled, his snoring continued.
Mirage felt her curiosity burn and with all her strength, which wasn't enough, she turned her head. She forced her eyes and finally, they opened with her eyelashes stuck together. Blinking rapidly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she smiled in adoration at Salar as he rubbed his nose against the back of his hand, and placing it back on her bum, resumed snoring like a child. Gazing at him lovingly, she felt her heart contract. So he had saved her somehow. Her grandfather would never come on land. The islands were heavily populated, and he couldn't reach anywhere else soon, so it probably meant that they had been rescued, otherwise Salar wouldn't be sleeping so soundly.
Lifting a hand, she reached up to stroke his face. Caressing his cheek with her hand, she moved into him. He had her head rested on his arm. She ran her hand on his chest and feeling her back stretch and she jumped slightly from the pain. Shifting, she settled into him a bit awkwardly.
The comfort of the bed sent her back to sleep and when she woke up a few hours later, Salar was gone. For some seconds, her mind adjusted and when her fingers didn't find Salar, she jerked up, panicked. "Salar?"
Instantly, he was there beside her in her line of vision, comforting her. "I'm here, Mirage. I'm right here. Don't worry, I'm not gone, I'm here." Pulling him to her, Mirage grabbed hold of his collar and he obediently lied down beside her, wincing as his injured arm sent a jolt of pain through his body. Pulling her by the waist towards him, Salar stroked her hair and she relaxed, wallowing in the sheer pleasurable feeling of being protected.
"Where were you?" She frowned.
Smiling, Salar stroked her head, "I was here. I was just looking out the window."
"Oh… where are we? What happened?" she murmured into his chest.
"We're at Baltoti. We're very near Sahilibur now, but we're going to get a move on when you're feeling better. We've had a few grave injuries so I made the decision to extend our stay here." He informed her in a reassuring voice.
Rubbing her eyes, she yawned. "How long was I out?"
Mirage frowned. Somehow, four days didn't seem enough. She decided to change the subject.
"How did we get here in the first place? How did you get us out?" She mumbled.
Salar smiled, "Well, I got a little help. Sepehr came to save us. He gathered the soldiers stationed at the islands and the fleet came to our rescue. The Queen didn't stand a chance. It was fast, but our cannons were stronger."
She raised her head, excitement in her eyes. "Sepehr came back?"
Gazing at her, Salar smiled, "He did."
"Where is he now?" Mirage looked around as if expecting her lot to jump out from one of the drawers, perhaps.
"The doctor didn't allow them in, she said you'll see them when you're fit enough to look decent. In the meantime, I'm at your beck and call." Salar touched her nose.
"Wonderful." Mirage smiled back like a happy little girl and settled her face back into his neck. He knew he should have felt angry or even jealous that she thought more about her friends than him but knowing that she loved them for a long time before he came into the picture; he understood Mirage's attachment to them.
Leaning in, he felt Mirage kiss his neck, "Emad and Aryan were injured, but they pulled out. They'll need loads of rest but they'll live. Although Emad can't hear from one ear now." He continued.
Thinking back to their burnt faces, Mirage sighed. "Well… At least now Emad's wife will be able to tease him that her words can't possibly travel from one ear and out the other if the other isn't even working."
Tugging Mirage away from him, Salar gazed at her, "You know you nearly died, right? You were out for days because you were so weak. You can't seriously make jokes so soon."
Mirage's smile disappeared and Salar mentally kicked himself.
"Oh… sorry." She mumbled but tucked herself into him again.
Salar breathed out. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's just… You scared me, you know. When you didn't move when I called you. You could have died…"
"I think I passed out from the pain. I remember fainting, but everything else before that is just a blur." She hesitated, "Wait… Where's grandfather? How did you get away from him?"
Salar stayed silent, not knowing what to tell her. Mirage raised her head, and holding his jaw, made him look into her eyes. "What happened?" She repeated stonily.
"He killed himself." Salar whispered. Mirage felt astonished but then again, it was quite possible that for a man who was kicked out of his own home by his son for corrupting the kingdom, hw was too proud to let someone else take his life.
"Good riddance, I suppose", Mirage said in a low voice.
Nodding, Salar stretched and pulled her into an embrace. "I thought I had lost you… your blood just wouldn't stop flowing out…" Salar murmured in her ear.
Reaching up, she placed a hand on his mouth, "Don't think about it."
Moments passed and Salar blurted as if he couldn't help himself, "You know I helped the doctor who stitched you up."
Bemused, Mirage held up her head from his chest, "You did? How?"
"I cleaned you… I mean…" He hesitated as Mirage's eyebrows went up.
"You mean you actually watched me bleed and then you even touched me after?" She silenced as Salar nodded, and she couldn't help but smile at his proud-little-boy grin.
"I had to do it. He was being very sloppy for a doctor. I even changed your clothes but I didn't look, I swear." He said defensively as he felt Mirage move up, perhaps getting ready to berate him.
Paying no attention to her pain, Mirage extended her arm over him, and bringing his head close, kissed him. Her cloudy head slowly cleared up as Salar kissed her back. How sweet of him! I can't believe anyone would do something like this for me. I think I'm falling in love with this big lump! Mentally shaking her head at her own ridiculous thought, Mirage enjoyed the softness of his lips and opened her mouth against his. Slowly, she realized that the more he touched her, the more he invaded her, the less she minded, even though she wasn't one to allow anyone to touch her, not this way.
Smiling, she felt exhilarated at her personal discovery. Well, well! I don't want to shove him away from me, so it must be true. I am in love with him, how unoriginal. I shouldn't have done that. Oh, perhaps it'll probably go way after the first seven months of marriage, Mirage thought, but as her mind went to his contorted face which had been her last memory, Mirage tightened her grip around Salar's injured arm and he jerked away.
"I'm sorry." Mirage blurted, regretting her ignorance of his injuries. Slowly, it came back to her, he had been hurt too, and she had tried to distract him. Now looking intently, she studied the burn marks on his skin, and wanting to touch him, to tend to him; she only stretched and kissed him on the clean skin of his shoulder.
Salar smiled lazily, "You're being very sentimental and loving."
"It's the nausea from the pain. It's making me behave in this peculiar way." She murmured. "Do you want me to stop?" She said, resuming her kiss on the neck.
Hearing him groan, Mirage grinned cheekily. The stretching made her want to squeal in pain, but keeping her mind on the task at hand, Mirage carried on. Gently pulling her up, Salar caressed her face and gazed into her eyes. She felt small in his hands, on top of him.
Smiling languidly, Mirage stroked his hair, softly running a finger down on the scar on his neck. Reaching into his shirt, she gently lifted the cloth away from his burn, examining it. "Well, at least it's going to start healing soon. Have you been airing it?"
Satisfied, she continued her inspection of his body nonchalantly. Spying the long scar that went from his neck down to his back, she frowned." How did you get this?"
Hesitating, Salar waved it away. "It was nothing."
"But it looks like a deep cut." Making to sit up, she grimaced and Salar pulled her back down.
"Is it really so important that you know?" He frowned.
Mirage stuck her chin out. "Well, you've already seen me without any clothes on, so I guess it would only be fair that I at least get to know what I'll be dealing with for the rest of my life."
Salar ogled at her, "But I didn't even look at you!" and Mirage grinned. Pulling a long face, Salar shook his head, "You're going to hold this over me for a long time, aren't you?"
"In any way I can." She grinned.
Heaving a sigh, Salar spoke, "I was away in training camp with the new recruits at the time. Your soldiers attacked, I fought back."
All sentiments gone, Mirage sat up straight, biting her lip as the pain ran through her, "My men did this to you?"
Quickly shaking his head, Salar sat up, "It's not your fault, it happened long ago."
"How long?" She demanded indignantly.
"A year ago, maybe." Salar shrugged.
I just can't get a break from this damn war; I should never have opened my mouth! She stared at him for a minute when unexpectedly for Salar, her face crumbled, "Oh Salar, I'm so sorry." Flinging her arms around his neck, the sheet she had clutched to her bosom slipped. Maybe it's a reflex of his, Mirage thought hazily as she felt him slip the sheet up to her neck before slinging his good arm around her hips. Secretly, she felt thrilled every time he did that.
"Hey, it's okay. They only fought for what they believed in. and I fought back. It was an even fight." He cajoled her, feeling like it wasn't the most comforting thing to say.
"No… they fought because I told them to. It was an order. If I had known that you'd be fighting, I would never…" She murmured and her voice suddenly broke.
Bewildered, Salar gripped her tighter. She was turning into someone so vulnerable. He couldn't wrap his head around it.
"Where did you fight?" She asked miserably.
Salar grimaced, "Kasra."
Mirage lifted her head, stunned. Rehbartaj had lost a lot of good men out there. The battle at Kasra had been the worst. An entire month had to be spent in mourning because the bodies just couldn't stop coming. An ephemeral memory flashed; long processions, men women and children crying, the hush after the burials, it had left Mirage depressed for so many months that finally her father had had to shove her into the preparations of the union feast to take her mind off of things, otherwise he hated all of the additional royal families. It had been her mother's idea. But the worst thing was, she had known for a fact that a recruiting camp for the Sahilibur army had camped out at the outskirts of the border connecting to Kasra. She didn't care. How cruel she was!
"I felt like the devil. I still do." She whispered as her eyes watered, "I had no idea what war was about. I just went with my gut. I felt terrible but I knew my feelings were nothing compared to those who had lost their loved ones."
Salar chose to say nothing, remembering the last words of so many of his friends or their vacant cold expressions.
"I'm a terrible human being. I did worse than what my father did to grandfather. I chose the fate of my people. I pushed them too far." She cried.
Just as Salar opened his mouth to tell her that it was a tactical decision, and yes there were going to be casualties, he was sure she'd prove to be a good, if somewhat emotional leader; Mirage suddenly shrieked, startling him. "YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO MAKE ME FEEL BETTER! YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO JUST SIT HERE LIKE AN IDIOT!" Pushing him out of bed, she rubbed her tears off her face against the back of her hand and instantly, she felt electrocuted as the stitches pulled. Gasping, stars appeared in front of her eyes and she felt Salar lay her down.
"You shouldn't have over done that." Salar reasoned, "You're still weak, maybe you should lie down."
Pulling the pillow on top of her head, Mirage screamed into the mattress in frustration. Men really could be stupid if they put their mind to it, Mirage thought. She wanted some comfort and all he did was let her accept her mistakes without even letting her feel like she wasn't an enemy. Salar winced and shook his head at her scream, feeling resigned. He backed against the chest of drawers, folding his arms, and waiting for Mirage to quit her tantrum.
Anymore and she'd be flailing her legs like a three-year old who wants something but can't have, he thought.
Finally, much cussing and outbursts later, Mirage finished screaming. Feeling very light-headed but for the good reason, her common sense came back and she realized what a child she was being. She hadn't even given him a chance to console her. After a few minutes of silence, she balled up her fists and mumbled something incoherent into the mattress.
Salar went over and lifted the pillow off her head, stifling a smile. "Can you say that again?"
Snatching the pillow back, Mirage waved him away, her face hidden. "Sorry." She said loudly.
Spying a bit of red on her bandage, Salar leaned down and whispered into the pillow, "It's okay. I'm going to go and get the doctor; it's time to get your bandages changed for today. Do you want anything?"
After some deliberation as Salar stood patiently for her reply, her hand blindly flailed to reach him, and he stepped forward. Holding onto his leg, she mumbled something which Salar made out as food.
"I'll be right back." Turning, he went to the door. Opening it, Salar called out to the three women standing nearby who seemed to be really interested in the situation in the princess's room. Instantly, one went red, not meeting his eyes. Salar asked the women to get Mirage some food. Looking back into the room, he smiled at Mirage who seemed to be watching him through a small peek from underneath her pillow. She lifted it up, revealing a strange look on her face.
Holding the door wide open, Salar stepped aside as a young woman with high cheekbones, pouty lips and coiffed dark hair scurried in, holding a tray laden with food. Following her inside, two more women; one equipped with a few folding tables; sat it down. Mirage stared at all the food greedily and raised her head to smile at Salar. Catching the pouty-lipped woman give Salar her doe-eyed gaze of what was obviously hero worship and adoration, jealousy flared in Mirage's heart. Gritting her teeth, she noted with satisfaction that Salar's expressions remained blank and formal and he didn't even note the woman's gaze. Finally, as all the tables groaned under the weight of the food, Mirage smiled tightly at Salar, "Would you please go and get the doctor for me now? I need to know about the extent of my injuries."
Salar nodded and heading out, was about to close the door when he heard Mirage's voice, clear and crisp. "You there! Help me up!"
Stopping, he listened. The doe-eyed girl sullenly approached Mirage and bowing, tried to arrange her expressions into one which did not reflect her disappointment. Throwing her pillow away, with much huffing and puffing from Mirage's part, she finally sat up with the girl's help.
"Thank you." She said sweetly and her voice suddenly dropped. "Now, my dear. I want you to do me a favor." Mirage smiled as a tremor of alarm ran across the girl's face, "I just want you to know that if you look at my husband again with that thought you have in your mind right now, then you'll lose that pretty face you have that gets you out of so many troublesome moments. And I really don't think you'd like to lose that pretty little face. You're so young; you'll have many other men to whore around with. So my favor from you would be to get out of this place and not show your face around here for as long as I'm here, do you think you can do that for me?" Her tone remained polite and sweet throughout.
Frightened, the woman stared up into Mirage's eyes and felt her heart stop at Mirage's insanely murderous crystal glare. "Am I making myself clear to you? Or do I need to give you a little gift to remind you of my favor?" Mirage asked innocently.
The woman shook her head quickly and backed away, muttering apologizes. Mirage sat back, examining her nails coolly, her face passive. "Wonderful. Now go." As they stumbled to get out, Mirage tutted, "The help these days…"
Chuckling, Salar stepped back as the women hurried out, each looking more frightened than the other. Catching sight of Salar; the pouty girl squealed in fright and ran away. The other two merely shook their head, taking their post against the wall near Mirage's room.
Sporting a smirk, Salar went and fetched the matron who had scolded him before on the boat. Returning back, Salar entered and smiled as he watched Mirage chomp down on a chicken leg.
With a nasty expression on her face, the matron shook her head. "Careful dear, you might choke on that." She called out from the doorway and Mirage stopped, glaring at the old woman.
Setting down the leg, Mirage daintily picked up a piece of bread and holding it up, nibbled on it. Swallowing it, she asked, "Better?"
The matron nodded, "Much." Taking a seat beside the bed, the lady doctor frowned as Mirage snorted. "It would take me years to eat a slice of bread, I'm not doing that!" Picking up the chicken leg, she began ripping the skin of the bone with her teeth, chomping down noisily to annoy the woman.
Frowning; apparently used to annoying patients, the doctor merely shook her head and began examining Mirage's wounds on her stomach.
Soon, telling Salar to leave, the doctor received a dirty look from Mirage who haughtily took Salar's hand and forced him to sit down beside her, saying that she didn't need to hide anything from him, besides; Mirage added rather too innocently; that he had already seen it all many times. Removing the sheet from her chest, Mirage enjoyed watching Salar blush and look away, and felt happy to see that her little trick had at least assured her that Salar was getting healthy again, judging by the blood rushing up to his head. Entwining her fingers between his, Mirage tightened her grip as the doctor started changing her bandages.
Rolling over to her front, Mirage gritted her teeth, wishing the check-up to soon be over, and scolded herself for calling the mean lady doctor with the cold hands. As the bandages opened, Mirage breathed deeply, feeling nauseated. She could feel the flesh sting underneath the doctor's touch and she shivered. Coughing, she straightened her spine and felt Salar's hand on her head. He came down to her eye-level and whispered, "It'll be over soon, don't worry."
"Can't you do this some other ti…", "No!" Fuming, Mirage turned her head away, and concentrated on trying not to jump or squeal.
Catching her grimace, Salar sat down on the floor beside her. "Are you okay now?"
She glared at him angrily and rolling her eyes, turned away. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the matron withdrew her hands. "There. That should do it. Try not to strain yourself."
As Salar closed the door, Mirage struggled and slowly sat back up.
Salar frowned, "She told you not to strain yourself."
Ignoring him, she reached for a bowl of fruit. "I'll do whatever I want." She said, popping a grape into her mouth.
Trying to control his anger, he thought about forcing Mirage to lie down when she held up a grape, offering it to him. Taking it from her, Salar sat down on the bed, crossing his legs. They continued eating.
"Marriage is quite hard, isn't it?" She whispered.
Salar looked up. "Yes, it is."
She fidgeted. Okay, so maybe I was being a bit weird, but I'm entitled to it, aren't I? She thought anxiously when Salar asked casually, "What did you say to that woman who had come in here with the food. She seemed to be scared out of her wits when she came out."
Mirage ate another grape and murmured.
Salar tried not to smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."
Mirage sighed heavily and made a big show of explaining it to him as if he was a child. "She kept staring at you and she didn't like it, so I told her to go away or I'd rip her face off."
Salar roared with laughter. "And I saw you listening in, so don't act like you don't know anything." She said loudly.
Salar kept laughing, "Oh of course I heard. I just wanted to know why you hate it so much that someone was looking. I didn't notice."
She rolled her eyes, "Don't act like a girl."
Salar chuckled, "Oh, I'm not, but it's wonderful to know that apart from the crying and the sudden outbursts of romantic seizure you seem to have, you still think like a girl."
"Well, what did you expect?" She sniffed distastefully.
Salar sniggered and she shook her head. Picking up an apple, Salar bit into it noisily and she watched him. She said carefully, "I still apologize, you know. For every grief that I have caused you."
Sighing, Salar dropped the apple back in the bowl. "Mirage, it was politics. You're passionate. Something like this was bound to happen. You just did it first."
"But I almost destroyed your country from the roots." She looked down at her hands.
"Yes, I know you did. In fact, I was the one who first noticed what was happening." Mirage stared, surprised. "I created counter-attacks and used the money your ghost companies invested to create and buy better weapons."
"But you never used them, your government surrendered when we attacked."
"No, my father did. I wanted to fight. He thinks I don't know about things that go on behind closed doors, but even this marriage…" He gestured to both of them, "This marriage was his idea. Your father loved it."
She sat back, gobsmacked. Her mouth hung open.
"Didn't you wonder why I was letting you come to Sahilibur so easily? I knew what the plan was. It was going to be the new capital. I knew that. That's why I didn't object when you told me." He picked up the apple again, "As far as the war is concerned, yes, it was your idea, but the fighting, the human loss, the economic downfall; it could all have been prevented if your father could have just talked first. Half the countries were on the brink of civil wars, your father could have just sit down and talked, but he didn't. So don't blame yourself, you weren't queen then, it wasn't your decision to make. It was your fathers'."
"My father is a bad decision maker." She admitted sadly, "I know as much."
"He is." Salar nodded, "So just… take it easy, okay? Your father can live with that guilt."
"But aren't you mad?" She asked delicately.
"I was; I am a bit. But the queen is my wife now, and I know, she won't let me just act out as a consort or a lapdog to her." Salar said confidently and Mirage smiled.
"You're not. You know how much I respect you. And I know how much you care about the people. I won't repress that." She put a comforting hand on his.
"I'm so glad you understood what I meant." She said happily.
Picking up a knife, he cut a sliver of the apple and handed it to Mirage. "It's a rare factor in my gender but I was gifted." He said with such gravity that Mirage giggled.
She felt so happy that instead of berating her, or possibly attacking her with a knife, he had become the voice of reason and told her to take a breather.
"Thanks." She said shyly, nibbling on the sliver of apple. He smiled, and resumed the cutting. She watched him closely, her gaze taking in all the little details she had failed to see before. Like how his eyes weren't the same color, how he maneuvered the knife and the apple in his hands which looked comically small, and how he had seemed to look so brutish and for the lack of a better word; dumb, but actually understood the situations better than anyone. She felt shame-faced and look away from him.
Spotting the window, she frowned as a ray of light streamed in and she felt it calling to her. She made to get up but Salar held her back, "Where are you going?"
"I wanna look out the window. It's so dark in here. I need light." She said and gripping his extended arm, she shoved the bowl of fruit away and swinging her legs off the bed, got up.
Okay, not the best idea! Mirage staggered and Salar caught her, forcing her to sit back. "Look, you can look out the window any time; you need to rest for now."
"No." She looked up angrily, "I'm tired of sleeping and this damn pain. I want to get out and breathe. I hate this room."
Salar looked around helplessly. Mirage caught his eye. "And I don't need a walking stick, I can walk just fine." Again, she got up but didn't stumble. All right, the world disappeared for a minute but she didn't need to tell him that. Somehow, she felt like she wanted to do was get out. She wrapped the bed -sheet around her tightly and holding onto the bed, she supported herself to the window. Ripping off the black make-shift curtain, she squinted as the light hit her, any more comical and she would have hissed at the light; and threw the window open. The smells, the noise and the cheer hit her like a wave, throwing her back. She reeled in and felt Salar behind her.
"Wave", he commanded in her ear and she obliged. They were all there. People, dozens of them. She couldn't believe it. The cheer intensified as she waved and she watched the parents point her out to their little kids and say something.
"What's happening?" She said through a gritted smile.
"They like you, apparently." He said, smiling and waving at the throng.
She felt her face burn. Salar looked down at her admirably. "You didn't tell me you were a regular visitor here."
"Where did you think I ran off to when I'd disappear from Farajtah? Europe? It's so passé there. I wanted familiar faces. So I used to come here." She looked at the people hanging in the double-storey hut opposite her and remembered that she was in the local hotel she had come to so many times. Odd, she didn't remember the rooms being so small.
"Come on back inside. You're getting tired." Waving goodbye, Mirage didn't realize as Salar reached across her to close the window that she had been gripping his hand tightly. Suddenly, she caught a glimpse and gasped. Salar paused.
Letting go of his hand, Mirage retreated but started pacing frantically. Salar looked confused. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Mirage looked up, her mouth set in a grim line. "Look at the pier."
Salar leaned out and squinted. Suddenly, his face cleared up and he let out a long 'oohhh'. The royal seals could not be mistaken.
He turned and gave Mirage a piteous look.
As the crowds parted for a long line of carriages, Mirage groaned and shut the windows with a slam. Damn, now they'd know which room she was in. Her family had arrived.
"Ow! Mother you can let go of me, I look fine now." Mirage cried as Queen Nadira brushed her hair with force behind her.
"Without even a note! WITHOUT A NOTE! You left me and your family hanging in the balance and all we had was your lump of a father who couldn't believe his own daughter had betrayed him. You know, he didn't even want to come and see you. We had such a big fight! You know he becomes a child when someone from his family provokes him! I understand what he did was wrong and Allah knows how much he is being made to suffer for that, but you… you just left. And not alone, but with your guards! And another man! Do you have any idea the scandal it would have caused if the people had found out? And marriage? You married him! What in God's name were you thinking? You don't even know the man! King Darius had been so livid, he'd almost had a heart attack and I didn't blame him for reacting this way! You really could have disgraced us! It's a wonder the people here are so gracious with you!" She said with every hard stroke of the brush. Her rant seemed to be going on forever.
Queen Nadira and her small army of children, servants, guards and an assortment of personal groomers had attacked her room as soon as Mirage had tried to tell herself that it was going to be alright. Hammering on the door, Queen Nadira had demanded that the door be opened. Mirage had forced herself to throw on an old shirt which Salar had riffled from one of the drawers. Stealing a deep kiss, they both had steeled themselves for the onslaught. Queen Nadira would have screamed, had she not contained herself. She had probably thought that they had been doing something intimate since Mirage's hair looked messy beyond belief even if they were clean, and the shirt she was wearing had blown against her body and stuck to her like a second skin, enhancing her body, and to boot, Salar had marks on his neck which could only be described as bruises caused by all the kisses she had laid on his neck. Queen Nadira had ushered them both out and away to a more regal part of the island which was used to house dignitaries who would come in to spend a holiday. Obviously, Salar had been there numerous times.
Feeling rather vexed that Salar was on the other side of the villa, currently trying to console his father that he had not in fact, kidnapped and forced the princess to marry him, which was what he would have thought; Mirage snapped. "Oh my God, mother, enough! Please! You've told me this over and over. I've already heard it all from everyone else, I don't need another lecture." Mirage exclaimed angrily. She was tired already and it had only been 7 hours since her family had arrived and seemingly taken over the Island. Her younger siblings surrounded her while her older sisters enjoyed their island tour while their husbands went over the inventory of the weapons in case they were attacked. It was a big liability; the entire royal family was there, which Mirage thought was very stupid of them to do.
Accordingly, her brothers were, at this moment, leering out the window at the gaggle of girls who had obediently flocked like stupid school girls to see the two handsome princes. To Mirage, they simply looked like baboons. Obediah and Shehzad played near her legs with a small wooden train set.
"YOU TWO, INSIDE! NOW!" Mirage barked, "AND CLOSE THE WINDOW!" Obediah dropped his train in surprise.
"You'd think she was our mother, instead of mama. Maybe the islanders should have left her on the ship." Rayan said to Razin who snickered.
"I heard that." Mirage snapped indignantly.
"Oh no!" Razin clutched Rayan by the collar in mock horror, "Run away, my dear brother, while you still can. I'll try to hold the beast back! Don't wait for me! RUN!!!" He pushed Rayan away who laughed, and dramatically fell to his knees as Mirage whipped her hair away from her mother's grip and stood up, "No, you vile insolent creature! Get away from me! GET AWAY!"
Grabbing a vase from the nearby table, Mirage threw it at Razin who dodged it and scurried out of the room, cackling with his brother. It smashed against the wall behind him.
"What is wrong with them?" Mirage turned to her mother, angry. "Why are they acting like that? They didn't even ask me about my injuries, they didn't even ask how I felt." Allah! A few months with Salar and I'm turning into a crying, whining mess, she thought as she felt the tears prickle her eyes.
Queen Nadira tilted her head, "You know how you all deal with stressful situations, you shouldn't even be asking me that."
"And they're boys so they have no emotional bones in their bodies." Roxie interjected, rolling onto her back on the large round bed and looking up at the ceiling. She had been the only one who had actually shown any true emotions towards Mirage's predicament and Roxie's tears over potentially losing her older sister had done Mirage a world of good.
"Sit back down. Your hair looks terrible." Queen Nadira patted the stool of the dressing table where Mirage had stationed herself.
"I look fine, mother. Please, I'm just tired." She said gritting her teeth, resisting the urge to scream.
Queen Nadira's eyes softened. She hadn't seen her daughter's injuries yet, neither had Mirage explained them. They had reached Sahilibur by the time they had received the news that Mirage was at the one of the islands on the outskirts of Sahilibur in dire condition. Her blood had run cold when she'd gotten the news about the Queen of the seas and had purposefully told the informer to seek residence elsewhere for a little while. She had sent a letter to her husband who had sought residence on the other side of the castle because she had forced him to come along. The information had knocked some sense into him and he had summoned the carriages straight away.
"All right, well, perhaps you should rest. You've been through so much." She looked sad.
Mirage sighed. "Mother, don't feel like I've cut you off. It's just that… I know you wouldn't be able to control yourself if you saw them."
The boys near Mirage stared interestedly and she smiled kindly at them.
The Queen seemed worried. "Was it that torturous?"
Mirage tried shrugging. "I really don't remember. The pain was too much for me to bear, so I suppose yes; it was torturous, mother. Torture usually is."
The Queen sat the brush down on the dressing table and sat on the bed, gently stroking Roxie's fanned out hair.
"You know you don't need to be so strong all the time, dear." She said quietly.
"I know, mother. But I've already tried sharing my feelings. I feel best when I'm with Salar, he gets what I say. I just don't want to bore anyone else with my confessions and tragedies." Mirage said, smiling unconsciously.
Queen Nadira looked up, surprised. "Really?"
Mirage nodded, "Yes."
Queen Nadira got up and grabbed Mirage by the shoulders, staring into her eyes. "You really like him? Are you absolutely sure?"
Shaking her mother's hands away, Mirage turned to look out the window. "I wouldn't have married him if I didn't."
Nothing could have prepared queen Nadira for such a shock. Her baby daughter actually liked someone! Someone who liked her back as well. Queen Nadira could judge as much from the rapid-fire instructions Salar had issued her when they had packed Mirage away in a carriage; even though she had already talked to the doctor. He had seemed anxious and exhausted, but he still hadn't let Mirage out of his sight, and had insisted that he ride along in the carriage with her. Queen Nadira almost felt sorry for him when she had said no, she had issued an announcement that they were engaged, not married. That didn't stop him from coming in at every hour to inspect Mirage from every angle to look for any new injuries she might have sustained, perhaps from a severe beating from her mother.
It was nearing sunset and Mirage only wanted Salar. She didn't want her family with her, even though she could tolerate the little ones. They were practically angels; it was the older ones who made her want to go on a killing spree. Side-stepping her two younger brothers, Mirage gently lowered herself on her bed, feeling her body give out as she fell on her stomach.
"I'd like to rest now." She announced. The queen hesitated.
Roxie looked up, "Can I stay with you tonight?" Her eyes reflected her concern and Mirage felt touched. Pulling her little sister by her hand, she turned back and snuggled Roxie into her stomach, tickling her, "Of course you can." Roxie giggled.
Excitedly abandoning the train set, Shehzad jumped onto the bed, scurrying near Mirage, "I want to tell you so much stuff. You won't believe what I did." Not entirely sure what was happening, Obediah threw the train down and with the Queen's help, curled up beside his brother who started his tale about how he had rescued a sick cat and kept it under the dining table in the dining hall, only to return after a few hours to see that the cat had actually been pregnant and had given birth to a litter of kittens. He didn't know why many of the guests hated cats; they simply did.
Only Mirage showed genuine interest in her younger siblings, the Queen thought with regret as Obediah innocently played with Mirage's hand which she had slunk across Roxie's waist. Her other hand was in Shehzad's, who sized up how big a kitten would look in her hand when he couldn't even hold one in his. His balled-up fists in Mirage's hand made Queen Nadira feel unexpectedly jealous. Slinking out, she wiped a tear from her cheek which had spilt out. The palace guards, who had traveled alongside the family, slightly turned away; they knew when to act like statues. Queen Nadira felt terrible. She only wished that Mirage herself would be as close to her other siblings and her mother as she was with the young ones. They all had their own lives but Mirage still found time. The others simply ignored each other, except for the twins.
Shamefully, even the queen had to admit that until King Sarosh had mentioned that he had made the decision to name Mirage as the next ruler, she had only thought of her third child as a troublemaker and a wallflower. One who didn't like being noticed but made a big fuss for not being noticed anyway. It was no wonder that Mirage didn't like being near Queen Nadira for a vast amount of time. What child would when the mother didn't even treat the child right? The twins had each other, Roxie was book smart, Shehzad was cunning enough to know his own ways and Obediah was too young to know anything but even he loved Mirage more than his mother, which made the queen concentrate on him more. Each of her children had a special gift, and yet, she had ignored the only one who needed a mother's love the most and treated her like she deserved to be treated that way.
No one knew why Mirage had chosen to be closed off from the world. No one knew why she was the way that she was, and no one knew why king Sarosh was so close to Mirage. But Nadira knew. Sarosh had known; and he had supported his daughter from the start; taught her right from wrong, mentored her and shown her how great she could be, and look at what Mirage had done. She had stabbed her father in the back because it was tattooed in her brain that she could trust no one, that when she needed support the most, her mother had abandoned her, taunted her and blamed her so the best thing to do was to support yourself and gain power, by hook or by crook. In Mirage's case, it was regrettably almost always by crook. A clean handkerchief appeared in her line of vision hesitantly and the queen took it, weeping into it. The guard resumed his position.
It was a miracle that Mirage even trusted Salar enough to marry him, and how she had said that she wouldn't have married him if she didn't like him, it meant what Queen Nadira suspected, and she couldn't be happier. Her daughter deserved happiness and love. She just needed to tell her daughter that she was so sorry but the time had gone, it was too late now…
"Your highness?" A male voice interrupted her thoughts and she opened her eyes. Salar looked at her, confused. She was standing with her back to the door, doorknob in her hand and tears streaming down her face. The guards on either side looked straight ahead, slightly red-faced and embarrassed because there was a crying woman in the midst and they couldn't do anything about it.
"Is something wrong?" He asked, unconsciously putting a hand on his sword which was clamped in its rightful place on his belt and eyed the guards suspiciously.
Queen Nadira shook her head and wiped her eyes hurriedly and stepping away from the door. "I'm fine son, just a little overwhelmed." It was obviously time for Salar's hourly inspection.
"I wouldn't go in there." She smiled slightly, "They're talking comfortably after what seems to be weeks. I don't think you should disturb them."
Salar looked at the door doubtfully. "She's fine, just tired." The queen added.
Behind Salar, his menacing bodyguard came into view and walking up to them, glared at Queen Nadira before passing her and coming to stand before the door, crossing his arms.
"I got Behroz to stand watch." Salar gestured, "For my sake of mind." He said in response to the Queen's raised eyebrows. The guards seemed dwarfed beside the big hulk and Queen Nadira suddenly got the urge to laugh but she just shook her head. Suddenly, a epiphany came to her. She had to make a decision to tell Salar the secret.
"Well, I would like to discuss some details about the wedding with you. Why don't we go someplace a little private?" The Queen asked nonchalantly.
A bit surprised, nevertheless, Salar obliged and directed her down the corridor. The queen walked spiritedly, as if she had just come to some conclusion.
Salar strode beside her. "Is there something particular you would like to discuss?"
The Queen nodded, "Yes dear boy," She whipped around and Salar stopped just in time to avoid colliding into her. "I want you to know some details about my daughter, and although they may change your mind about me, I want you to know that if these forthcoming details affect my daughter in any way, you will have me to answer to, and it'd make sense for you to know that Mirage got her bloodthirsty trait from me. Is that understood?"
Salar stared at her ghostly. Yep, just like her mother, he thought and nodded since he didn't have a choice.
"Good." She turned around and started walking again. They went down the few flights of stairs until they turned to the corridor overlooking the garden. Queen Nadira took a few steps before whipping back again. "Where is the blessed room we can talk in?" She asked in exasperation.
Looking around, Salar pointed at a door which led to the music room. She strutted to the door and opening it, looked back at him. "Well?" She held the door wide open, "Get in."
Just like her mother, he thought as he ambled in.
"Now what I am about to tell you is to be kept in the strictest of confidence. Am I clear? Good." Queen Nadira sat down in an armchair next to the piano with a flourish.
Salar stood in front of her, not knowing what to do. Although his curiosity was burning, he had to keep his tongue in check. He simply nodded.
The Queen stared icily at him. "Well? What are you waiting for? Sit down." Snapping out, Salar seated himself on the piano stool beside her.
The Queen took a deep breath as she composed herself. "Now," She breathed heavily, "first of all, I'm very happy that my daughter has found someone she can trust enough to have around for the rest of her life. I must say that I had become extremely worried when his Highness had announced that he wanted Mirage to be married. I'm sure you will take much care of her."
Salar nodded again, intrigued. Encouraged, Queen Nadira started speaking. "My daughter really is a gem. I know it's early times for the both of you but I must ask you to be patient with her. You see, she didn't have the same childhood as her brothers and sisters." She continued as Salar's eyebrows rose.
"You must understand. I love my children very much. It's just… I got a little distracted after the little ones were born and I just couldn't pay attention to all of them. My eldest daughters had grown up, and the little ones had become such a handful that I just couldn't pay attention to all their needs." A hint of anxiety reflected in her tone.
Bewildered, Salar waited for her to get to the point.
She gathered up her courage. "Now you might not know about this, but… I had a brother. An older brother." Queen Nadira glanced up. "My brother… well, he was different. He wasn't like all the other men that we see around here. Ali…" Her eyes clouded, "I loved him very much. After my father died, he kept the family afloat. In my eyes, he could do no wrong. He was a hero. He was an officer, you see. The youngest to be one. He was respected, and well-known. The Vazir at that time, Hami was very proud of him. Ali was my brother, but he was also my role model. I used to think he was perfect but I didn't know how mistaken I could be about him."
Salar waited patiently. "Go on."
"Many people say that Mirage has my mother's eyes. Even though we are almost the same, my mother was a bit cruel, and stern. She liked things to be done in a certain way; her way, to be precise. My mother had this look in her eye, one which always disapproved of every action that peeved her. Mirage looks so much like my mother. She looks just like her. Our mother was actually very young when she got married, so when she died, she wasn't even that old."
Salar nodded, acknowledging his understanding when really he was beginning to feel a little anxious as to the moral of this story.
"Well, you see, after my mother died, I allowed my brother to stay in the castle with us. Our mother's death had affected him so much. He had been so young when she had passed away; he had gone into shock, I knew he was grieving; he was the apple of her eye. But then, he started acting strangely. He started drinking alcohol, he got into violence, and he was beginning to go insane. I just couldn't see it, I denied it. I couldn't see him do anything wrong. I just wanted what was best for him. I didn't know he would turn on us." She wrung the handkerchief in her hands anxiously.
"My children had the entire east wing of the castle to themselves. I wanted to keep them near each other as much as possible. The king and I had our quarters in the middle. My brother had a whole other area. When Mirage was born, he hated her on sight. I know that now. She reminded him of our mother. And as Mirage started to grow up, she got all the quirks my mother had. She was as stern, straight-forward and as beautiful as mama was, if not as much intimidating." She fidgeted and a tear threatened to spill over.
She took a deep breath and it seeped back. "I didn't even know when it started happening. I didn't know he was being so cruel to my daughter. She loved him so much, he was her uncle and apart from my husband, he was the only other man in her life. When my son was born, I started neglecting Mirage, but I don't think she even noticed."
"My brother was out of his mind, but he'd regain his senses at some times, and he'd be so nice to Mirage, so I figured that his strangeness had been just a phase. I thought he had turned to normal. When Mirage was 5 years old, she tried telling me one day. Uncle Ali had slapped her. She had cried so much, but I refused to believe her. I think I was in denial then; I just couldn't believe her. Since Rayan were born, she had started to act out so much; I thought she was just making it all up. I explained it to her that it was all in her head, she must have dreamt it or imagined it." Salar stared at her in horror.
She continued miserably, "She started withdrawing from all of us. She wouldn't talk, she wouldn't eat, and she wouldn't play. She'd just stay in her room or disappear for hours. She started getting scared of Sarosh, she would scream every time Ali would enter the room and run away, and like the irresponsible mother that I am, I just couldn't pin-point her problem. I foolishly kept thinking that perhaps it was her overbearing shyness. I made dozens of excuses. I had Razin a year later and my life became more hectic. I just shelved her behavior towards my neglect and decided to pay more attention to her. But I just couldn't. I didn't take her seriously. And even when her aya would tell me about the bruises she'd see on Mirage's body, I'd cast it aside as something she might have gotten when she was playing."
"She turned into this quiet, miserable, introverted girl and I didn't notice. I just thought she thought that that's what a princess was supposed to be like. She'd stay silent all the time, she wouldn't even react in Ali's presence, as if she was used to him now. Her sisters never caused me any trouble, so I thought maybe she was learning from them." She quickly brushed a tear away that had slipped out.
"She was your daughter, why did you ignore her?" Salar snapped angrily, trying to keep his voice under control.
"I was selfish and perhaps a little jealous." She looked up. "I wasn't the beauty anymore…" She smiled weakly, "But you can't blame me. I was only in my twenties when she was born, I was young and immature." Salar snorted, not bothering to cover his disgust over her defense.
"Well, sometimes she would just sit at the steps of the castle, overlooking the guards and their families. That's where she met her male friends. She was scared of them at first. Her guard Sepehr, he told me how he had approached her like she was a frightened animal. It had taken him weeks to get her to utter a singular sentence. He approached her because she seemed sad and scared, and envious of what he had with his family; their closeness. They were all the sons of our servants. Sepehr was the son of a castle guard. Aria and Alana never looked at him, but Mirage had smiled at him when he had first introduced himself. She soon became part of his little group of friends." The Queen stood up and went to the harp. Her fingers gently grazed the strings and a few notes emitted. "I didn't want her playing with them, but she'd always find some way to meet them, so I just let her do whatever made her happy. It was Sepehr who had made me see sense. For a 14 year old, he was quite an imposing young man."
She spoke softly, "Mirage had mentioned to him that Ali would visit her at night sometimes, drunk, out of his wits. He'd beat her so much, threatening her that if she uttered a single word, he'd kill mother. She thought he meant me; he actually meant our mother. He would tell her, 'I'll kill you mother.' But she was young, that's what she understood. Ali needed a substitute to take out his anger on, and Mirage was the closest thing he could get to my mother. Sepehr coaxed the entire story out of her and when she told him, he came straight to me."
"He had barged into my room that evening, screaming bloody murder that I was a terrible mother. Sarosh would have killed him had I not stopped him. Sepehr told us the whole story, but I wanted proof. I was scared. I thought Mirage was lying, so I called her. I asked, but instead of saying anything, she simply started crying, telling me how sorry she was and now Ali was going to kill me. Sarosh believed her, but I was shocked. My dear brother wouldn't do that. He was a part of the law. He knew what happened to those girls who'd get beaten. Beating someone doesn't make you any more of a man; it makes you a coward. But then, Mirage showed me. The long bruises on her back; even a large welt on her neck which she had kept hidden in her long hair. That's the reason she still has long hair, because the welt on her neck left a mark. Otherwise she was like a boy, she hated anything that made her resemble a girl and yet, she'd keep her long hair."
Salar felt shocked. His Mirage? The strong, willful and brave girl who outlived the torture that would put even the sturdiest of soldiers to shame? She had been beaten as a child?
"Please sit down." Queen Nadira said, a tremor of nervousness sounded in her voice. Odd, Salar didn't remember standing up. He wasn't going to back down quietly though.
"I AM NOT GOING TO SIT DOWN! HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN TO HER?" Salar roared. "SHE CAME TO YOU AND SHE KEPT TELLING YOU AND YOU DID NOTHING!"
Self-righteously, Queen Nadira stuck out her chin, "I did what seemed right at the time and I fixed it when Sepehr told me."
"YES BUT YOU DID THAT AFTER THE DAMAGE WAS DONE! WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE HE…?" He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Why did he do this to her?"
The Queen looked away. "My brother was different. In spirit, he was like every other man you knew. Strong, smart, and a leader. But inside…"
"Inside what?" Salar asked acidly.
"Inside, he was broken. My mother… When my father had died, she had given the responsibility of the entire household to my brother. He was the man of the house. But only by name; he wasn't even a teenager yet. My mother dictated his every move, what he should do, where he should go, who he should meet; everything. She promised him at that time, that she would help him. You see, years later, he met someone. He was in love with someone but mama didn't want him to marry her. He was her only son, he was the bread winner, she couldn't let him spend all the money on his wife and child. She needed it for her house, not someone else's."
Salar's mouth set in a grim line.
"So she did what she thought was right at the time. She got my brother into the army. She knew he'd excel in it. When he went away for the new recruits' training, she found a groom for the girl Ali liked and had her married, saying that my brother had married someone else near the training camp. My brother was away for a few years and didn't find out about this. After that, Sarosh found me and I married him. During Ali's stay abroad, my mother would send him letters telling him how the one woman he loved had betrayed him, and he kept believing her lies. When he came back, the girl already had two children. She accused mama of creating this ruckus and they got into a huge fight about it. Ali defended mama, naturally. But when the girl took out a letter, dating back to the time when he had gone to camp which mama had forged to make the girl believe of his marriage, mama couldn't take it. She didn't know she was caught. She had a heart attack. She went to complete bed-rest and my brother took care of her because that was his duty. The girl moved away to another country. I don't even know if she or her husband is alive now." Queen Nadira said scornfully.
"When my mother was about to die, she told him the truth. She told him everything, but even till the end, she didn't apologize. She said what she did, had to be done for her own sake. Ali just couldn't take it. Her selfishness astounded us all." She closed her eyes as if to repress a memory.
"When he saw Mirage, the eyes reminded him of mama and her betrayal. I don't have the same eyes as mama; people say that I seem kind, whereas Mirage doesn't. That's about the only difference in our features. He'd look at Mirage and that's why he'd drink. But then, he would drink too much and then he'd lose his senses. He'd stumble into Mirage's room and torture her." She said quietly.
"You do know I've lost all respect for you?" Salar glared at her.
"I don't blame you." She replied solemnly. "Sarosh had wanted to kill him, but before he could, I asked for one last conversation with Ali. When I met Ali, I told him all what he had done. I thought he'd be horrified over his actions with my baby girl. But instead, he just laughed. That's when I realized that I was a horrific mother. That Mirage had been telling the truth all along, and that I was in denial over his state. He laughed in my face, and said that he'd skin Mirage alive because she looked like my mother so she must have my mother's spirit inside her, and my mother deserved worse over her selfish deeds" She held up a hand as Salar made to yell again, "When he said that, something in me suddenly snapped."
"Oh yeah, what did you do?" Salar asked sarcastically, his hands itching to at least throttle the queen. He had never met someone so insanely selfish. The queen sighed and answered.